AJ Freund’s mother sentenced to 35 years in his beating, cold shower murder

WOODSTOCK, Ill. — Courtroom observers shook their head in apparent disbelief Friday as JoAnn Cunningham, the Illinois woman who last April fatally beat her 5-year-old son, Andrew “AJ” Freund, with a metal shower head and forced him to stand under the frigid spray as punishment for soiling himself, was sentenced to 35 years in prison.

Cunningham, 37, of Crystal Lake, pleaded guilty in December to first-degree murder. She faced up to 60 years in prison, a maximum sentence that prosecutors hoped she’d receive. The minimum sentence she faced was 20 years.

Judge Robert Wilbrandt, in delivering the sentence Friday afternoon, said his decision was based, in part, on the fact that the murder charge to which Cunningham pleaded guilty did not include the aggravating factors of the original charges. The May 2019 indictment of Cunningham and her husband, Andrew Freund Sr., included a total of 41 charges between the pair and alleged that their young son’s murder was “accompanied by exceptionally brutal or heinous behavior indicative of wanton cruelty.”

The language of those particular charges was removed as part of her plea deal, the judge said. Cunningham will have to serve 100% of her sentence before she is eligible for release. If released at the age of 72, she would be required to register as a person who has committed violence against children.

Wilbrandt described AJ’s death as “a horrible death preceded by a horrible life.”

He said he’d taken into account the brutality of the crime, as well as the ongoing abuse AJ had suffered from the moment he was born addicted to heroin, but that he had also taken into account Cunningham’s underlying mental health issues, as well as her “long and sordid history of drug use” that exacerbated those issues.

He credited her with trying to get clean several times but said she ultimately returned to “living in what can only be described as drug-addled filth.” When she did, she subjected AJ and his younger brother, Parker, to untold suffering.

Family members, who hung their heads and cried silently during the sentencing, issued a statement after the hearing, according to the Northwest Herald.

“We know that whatever the punishment, it will not ease the loss and pain we feel. AJ was an innocent, precious little boy whose life was taken from him after he endured, what we now know, was much pain and suffering,” the statement read. “We had expected JoAnn would pay for that by spending her natural life in prison.”

AJ’s voice filled Wilbrandt courtroom Thursday morning as prosecutors played multiple recordings of Cunningham berating and arguing with her young son, who told her he wanted bad people to do things to her so she and his brother would leave him alone with Freund. The boy told Cunningham he no longer wanted a family, according to the Herald.

“You don’t have one,” Cunningham responded in one tape. “Do you really think (your dad) would choose you over me and (your brother)? Shut up!”

Freund, who has pleaded not guilty, is awaiting trial on 21 charges, including multiple counts of first-degree murder. The 61-year-old former attorney is being held in the McHenry County Jail.

Cunningham is heard in the recording asking AJ why he wanted her to go away, the Herald reported.

“Why do you want those bad people to hurt me?” JoAnn said.

“So I don’t ever see you again,” AJ responded.

Who would AJ tell to hurt her, Cunningham wanted to know.

“There’s no way we could get in trouble,” she told her son. “Who would you go tell on us to get us in trouble? What would you do? What is your grand plan? How would you get us in trouble? With who? With what people?”

“By bad people, really bad people,” AJ said.

Court documents previously filed in Cunningham’s case indicate the recording, which had a date stamp of March 27, 2019, included video. In the video, AJ had visible cuts and bruises on his face and forehead.

As she interrogates the boy, she “grab(bed) him by the throat and pushe(d) him against the wall, insisting that he tell her who he is going to get her in trouble with, until AJ choke(d) for air,” the records said.

“After AJ says he loves his family, defendant Cunningham responds, ‘bull(expletive), you don’t show it,’” prosecutors wrote.

Less than three weeks later, AJ was dead. Dr. Mark Witeck, the forensic pathologist who conducted the boy’s autopsy, said he died of blunt force trauma to the head.

Cunningham and family members sitting behind her in the courtroom wept as the recordings were played Thursday morning, The Associated Press reported.

When she was allowed to speak on her own behalf, Cunningham called her son “smart, brilliant, handsome ... courageous, driven and absolutely loved,” according to the Herald.

“I had the privilege of having AJ as a son,” Cunningham said. “I love him, I miss him and there’s nothing I wouldn’t do to bring him back. Anyone who truly knows me knows how much I love being a mother more than anything in the world. Being a mother defines me. My children gave me a purpose. I miss all of them so much.”

She told the court she will never be able to justify her actions, nor does she want to, the newspaper reported.

“I would give my life to have AJ back. This is something I will never escape from,” Cunningham said.

In his closing argument, McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally described AJ’s death and the toll of it, which he said goes beyond the “brutality” the boy endured on the final day of his life.

“The real harm, the real injury caused by AJ’s death is limitless. AJ is irreplaceable,” Kenneally said, according to the Herald. “This wasn’t a quiet, peaceful death. (It was) blow after unrelenting blow, all while being buffeted by freezing cold water, all while his mother screamed in his face.

“She hasn’t been sitting here crying for AJ, she has been sitting here crying for herself. It’s evil.”

Editor’s note: The following description of AJ Freund’s life and death is graphic and may be difficult for some readers.

Testimony at Thursday’s hearing and court documents paint a horrific portrait of the “abuse, torment and callous neglect” AJ suffered in his short life. After he sustained his final beating, the boy’s brain swelled to the point that it crushed itself in his skull, shutting down the rest of his body, the Herald reported.

“It’s a pretty bad case. Not the worst I’ve seen, but it’s pretty bad,” Witeck testified, according to the newspaper.

The autopsy also showed that AJ had aspirated blood into both of his lungs, according to court documents obtained by WGN in Chicago. He had bruises and abrasions on his torso, arms and legs.

The documents said the boy also had “patterned injuries of small circular abrasions on (his) central forehead” that matched the pattern of the detachable shower head found in the family’s home, indicating he was beaten with it as he was made to stand, shivering, under the spray.

Read the factual basis for Cunningham’s guilty plea below, courtesy of WGN.

The witnesses who took the stand Thursday, as well as statements from neighbors that were read in court, detailed years of prolonged abuse of AJ, who was born with heroin in his system. He spent the first 20 months of his life in foster care before being returned to his parents.

The boy’s former foster mother, who now has custody of Parker and the boys’ half-sister, who was born while Cunningham was in jail following AJ’s death, testified that she had him from the age of 4 months to 18 months.

“He was compassionate,” the woman, whose name was withheld by the Herald, said in a statement. “He was the most perfect little boy.”

One neighbor told authorities that AJ arrived at her house on Halloween night 2017 with “a substantial amount of medical tape wrapped over his head and torso.” He also had clumps of hair missing and Vaseline spread over his face.

When she asked if he was costumed as a mummy, she was told AJ “accidentally spilled boiling water all over himself,” the court records said.

That same neighbor recalled a winter night in 2017 or 2018 when she spotted AJ and Parker outside, Parker sitting in a running car in only a diaper. Freund and Cunningham could be heard arguing inside the house.

When she asked AJ what was going on, he told her “they were going to a hotel if Mom and Dad don’t kill each other.”

Cunningham came outside shortly after and, when she saw the neighbor, she told her, “You’d better not call the (expletive) cops on us,” the records showed.

Multiple other people had come forward to police about signs of abuse they saw on AJ, including additional neighbors, an employee who worked at Freund and Cunningham’s credit union and a co-worker of Freund’s. All would have testified at Cunningham’s trial if she had not pleaded guilty last year, the court documents stated.

A Crystal Lake police officer testified Thursday about responding to a burglary call at the family’s home in December 2018, in which Cunningham had reported stolen medication. According to court records, she accused Daniel Nowicki, her boyfriend, of stealing her Suboxone prescription.

Suboxone is a medication used to treat opioid addiction. Nowicki was the father of Cunningham’s daughter, with whom she was seven months pregnant when AJ was killed.

According to the Herald, Nowicki, who was petitioning for custody of the baby, died of a suspected drug overdose in Indiana last fall. He was apparently living with Cunningham and Freund at the time she became pregnant.

Cunningham had her two sons with her when she met with Officer Kimberly Shipbaugh about the missing Suboxone.

Shipbaugh described finding a softball-sized bruise on AJ, who was wearing a diaper, the Herald reported. When the officer asked him about the bruise, Cunningham “knelt down to AJ’s ear and said, ‘Lucy the dog did that to you, right?’” according to the paper.

At the emergency room of Northwestern Hospital in Woodstock the same day, a doctor questioned AJ alone, away from his mother, and he told her he’d been spanked.

“Maybe someone hit me with a belt,” AJ told the doctor, according to a Department of Children and Family Services report on the case. “Maybe Mommy didn’t mean to hurt me.”

Read the DCFS timeline of AJ Freund’s life and death below.

The doctor, Dr. JoEllen Channon, testified Thursday that she contacted DCFS to request a forensic interview of the boy. A DCFS employee told her that was not possible at the time, the Herald reported.

“We did not want AJ to leave with JoAnn that day,” Channon testified.

AJ’s death triggered an investigation of Illinois’ child welfare system, the AP reported. A caseworker and a supervisor involved in his case lost their jobs over the handling of his alleged abuse.

Shipbaugh and other officers who responded to the family’s home after AJ was reported missing told of finding a filthy and dilapidated house containing dog feces and urine, broken and jagged flooring in the kitchen, a ceiling peeling from water damage, multiple broken windows and a bag of used syringes.

Officers also found a chain lock and padlock outside of AJ’s room, screws securing his windows and a combination lock on the door of his closet. A small toilet sat in the room, the Herald reported.

Freund called 911 the morning of April 18 – three days after AJ reportedly was slain – to report that the boy had left the house sometime the night before. A massive search was undertaken, but searchers, including K-9 officers, found no sign of AJ outside of the family’s home.

Suspicion soon fell on Freund and Cunningham, who one officer described as talking and laughing with a friend while he searched the home for her son, the Herald reported.

According to prosecutors, the parents sent one another text messages in the days and hours before the fake 911 call – but after AJ was dead – depicting a normal life with their children.

“How are you and the boys doing today?” one message from Freund read, according to the newspaper. “I hope you are playing outside.”

In an April 17 exchange, they discussed how they would handle AJ’s behavioral problems, which they said was due to oppositional defiant disorder.

“We will figure it out,” Freund wrote. “With God’s help. Let’s keep praying.

“Have a … blessed day. I’ll see you tonight. Give the boys a kiss and hug for me.”

AJ was reported missing the following morning. Freund ultimately admitted that his son was dead after he was confronted with a video found on his wife’s cellphone of AJ lying on a mattress.

The video, timestamped March 4, was chilling.

“AJ is seen laying on a bare mattress in a crib in a room I recognized to be his bedroom from 94 Dole Ave.,” Detective Edwin Maldonado, of the McHenry County Sheriff’s Office, wrote in an affidavit. “In the video, a female with a voice consistent with JoAnn’s is holding the phone and videotaping. She is berating AJ for urinating on his bed.

“AJ is seen to (be) naked except for some small bandages around both wrists and circling his hips. AJ is seen to be holding an ice pack to his face and when he removes it, he is seen to have deep red bruising around his eyes, and yellowish-greenish bruising around his neck and upper chest.”

In his alleged confession, Freund told police his wife had caused the injuries seen on AJ in the video. He said they had decided that, instead of the “hard physical beatings” as punishment, AJ should be put into a cold shower when he misbehaved.

“JoAnn would hit him and there often were times I had to intercede and stop that from happening, and I tried to convince JoAnn that that’s not the way to go, OK?” Freund said, according to court documents. “And how he, he’s five. So, she had come up with the idea of putting him in, like, a cold shower as punishment.”

On the night of April 15, he said, AJ had soiled his underwear and tried to hide it. They forced him into the cold shower for 20 minutes. Freund claimed he helped AJ out of the shower and put him to bed “cold, wet and naked.”

“Drew said JoAnn got up and checked on AJ and that was when she got Drew and she used Drew’s phone to search for child CPR,” the affidavit said.

After realizing his son was dead, Freund said he took AJ’s body into the basement and stored it in a Rubbermaid tote for two days.

On the night of April 17 -- the night the couple initially claimed they’d put AJ to bed after “brushing teeth, washing hands and saying prayers” -- Freund wrapped his son’s body in several trash bags, placed him in the trunk of his car and drove him to a wooded area near Woodstock, about 8 miles from home.

There, he dug a shallow grave, placed AJ’s body in it, covered him with straw and left, the affidavit said.

Freund led investigators to where he buried his son, Maldonado wrote. The boy’s body was recovered April 24.

The AP reported that the Freund home stood empty for months following AJ’s death and his parents’ arrest. It was demolished in March.